The WikiLeaks saga is centered on issues of government transparency and accountability, but the public is being strategically denied access to the Manning hearing, one of the most important court cases in our lifetime.
Twenty-four-year-old Private First Class Bradley Manning is facing life in prison or even the death penalty for leaking hundreds of thousands of documents about US wars and diplomacy to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Some of the documents in question are now posted online and have been the fodder for news articles and public discussion about world politics for well over a year. This case will show much about the United States’s tolerance for whistleblowers who show the country in an unflattering light. Are we a nation that tolerates criticism and values transparency? Or are we willing to crack down on whistleblowers of conscience? Unfortunately, the military is taking steps to block access by the media and the public to portions of the proceedings, robbing the world of details of this critically important trial.
No full transcript available
The details of Bradley Manning’s prosecution aren’t making their way into the public domain in large part because there is no full transcript being made public. During a recess from the hearing, I questioned a public affairs officer, who refused to provide his name, about when a transcript would be made available. He said that it would likely be three to four months—long after the media interest had faded.
Computers and recording devices banned
The government has banned all recording devices, audio or video, from the media center or the courtroom. This is particularly galling because the government has ample ability to record the proceedings in full and make them publicly available; in fact, the trial is being recorded and livecast to the media center, where reporters under the strict supervision of public affairs officers are taking frantic notes.
Journalists are forbidden to connect to the Internet, making the possibility of live tweeting and live blogging challenging. The government allowed a mere twenty members of the public into the hearing. Spectators were denied laptops, meaning the only way for the public to get notes on the pretrial hearing is by scribbling notes on paper.
Media access denied or rescinded
When Nathan Fuller applied for a press pass to attend the hearing and take notes from the media center, his request was granted—and then rescinded. Among other things, Fuller is an intern with the Bradley Manning Support Network, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to cover the financial costs of Manning’s defense and educate the public about the issues involved. On Monday, I asked the public affairs officer at the hearing what criteria were used to assess whether someone qualified as a journalist for the purposes of receiving a press pass, and he said he did not know. I asked how many other individuals had been denied press passes to the hearing, and he again replied that he didn’t know. I asked how many other individuals had received press passes only to have them rescinded and got the same non-response. He didn’t know if there was a phone number for someone who would have the answers to these questions. I asked my questions again on Tuesday, and the public affairs officer still knew nothing—except that he wouldn’t have an answer for my questions that day.
Overflow theater closed down even when people are barred from the courtroom
On the first day of the hearing, individuals not among the first twenty to arrive at the hearing were given access to a theater across the street. While recording devices were not allowed, this theater offered the flexibility to enter and leave at will. As a result, there was access to cars where laptops and cell phones were stored, which facilitated reporting. The theater also provided a way for those who were late to the hearing to be able to sit down and start watching the proceedings right away, instead of waiting in an empty trailer for an hour or more for the first recess. This is particularly important because there were long lines to have vehicles inspected to gain entrance to the base, and there was no published schedule for when the hearing would begin, making lateness a frequent occurrence.
After the second day, however, the overflow theater was closed down. I spoke to a military representative who said the theater was closed down because the courtroom wasn’t full. It is true that Saturday the courtroom was not at spectator capacity, but that was the day of the public rally protesting the prosecution of Bradley Manning, so it’s not surprising there were fewer people in the court. The courtroom was at capacity on Tuesday and two individuals who had driven in from Occupy DC were denied entrance because there were not enough available seats. Nonetheless, the military still refused to open the theater.
No accommodations for disabled and elderly access
If you’ve got a small bladder, poor hearing or can’t handle stairs, then forget about attending Manning’s trial. I was particularly sad to see famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg struggling to hear the proceedings. I spoke to the military police and urged them to open the public theater so that individuals like Ellsberg could sit closer to the sound system. I was rebuffed.
Manning’s pretrial hearing is being held at Fort Meade in Maryland. Individuals who want to drive on base have to undergo a lengthy inspection of their vehicle, often waiting in line for a long period of time. And sometimes even waiting in line won’t get you in: Lt. Daniel Choi, a veteran and outspoken advocate for ending the military’s discriminatory policies toward LGBT servicemembers, was held at the entrance at length. The military personnel at the entrance to the base took issue with Lt. Choi’s military uniform and delayed his entrance to the base for some time. Though he eventually passed through security, Choi was there only briefly before being removed from the base; his uniform was ripped and his wrist injured as he was forcibly evicted. The military, which did not charge him, accused him of “heckling,” though no witnesses saw any evidence of untoward behavior on Choi’s part.
Lt. Choi spoke out against the Manning trial during an interview with Keith Oblermann. "You don’t have to be in the military to understand this is a show trial," he said, "This is a farce of justice and being in that courtroom this weekend, I don’t think that America has had lower moments.”
The long delay at the entrance caused Choi to arrive late at the courtroom, and because the theater was closed he was unable to watch much of the proceedings.
While the documents attributed to Manning have been widely dispersed and are the subject of many news articles, the government insisted on shutting the public and the media out of large portions of the hearing. On the third day of the trial, the investigating officer decided to accommodate the prosecution’s request for a closed hearing for a portion of the next day. The investigating officer found that the information had been properly classified and that the need to maintain that classification outweighed the value of a public and open trial. But the public, who has had access to the WikiLeaks releases for well over a year, was not given an opportunity to object. The only objection raised was from the defense team of Bradley Manning, to no avail. No explanation was provided regarding what information would be reviewed in the closed portion of the trial. And notably, the investigating officer allowed “relevant government agencies” to remain even as the public was ousted, without providing any information on what agencies were considered relevant.
No media organizations have yet contested the right to have access to the closed portions of the proceedings.
Wikileaks thrown out
Among those thrown out of the courtroom during the closed portions of the hearing were attorneys for the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks had petitioned for guaranteed access to the hearing, and had sent in an attorney who had the highest level of secret security clearance. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Assange and WikiLeaks, is appealing their right to access the trial. In a press release, CCR legal director Baher Azmy said, “As counsel for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we must be given access to these proceedings. The lack of transparency that has been a hallmark of the military’s prosecution of Private Manning to date also serves to obscure his abusive conditions of confinement.” Assange and his lawyers are also concerned about the threat of an extradition request from the United States on matters raised in Private Manning’s proceedings.
At its heart, the Bradley Manning trial is about secrecy, about understanding how our own government as a world power operates in complex international waters, about debating the sacrifices we’re willing to make to advance our interests. Whatever interests the military may have in conducting its case against Manning behind closed doors, we as a society cannot tolerate attempts to rob us of knowledge of the court proceedings. This trial will change the history of our country; I only hope we get to be in the room when it happens.